This project will address the issue of unitary versus federal states at a regional level in the Gulf. The state system of the Gulf: Decentralisation, federalism and regional integration
This project is part of the research programme "The Gulf Research Unit" based at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo Participants
Can today’s established states in the Gulf be expected to survive, or should future foreign investors prepare themselves to deal with far smaller entities, like the federal units that are currently emerging in Iraq? This project will address the issue of unitary versus federal states at a regional level in the Gulf. The concept of “federalism,” until recently largely seen as a taboo in Islamist and Arab nationalist discourse, has since 2003 made an astonishing impact the region, in particular in Iraq. But other key countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Oman and Yemen also possess internal tensions similar to those that have prompted demands for federalism in Iraq. Could these countries also come to devolve into federal entities over the next decades? Might existing federal structures, like those of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), devolve further as a result? This project will show how federalism has some considerable precedents elsewhere in the Arab and Islamic worlds, but also how the concept of devolution is becoming increasingly mixed with the question of external intervention in the region and therefore may face some unexpected future backlashes as well. The outcome of this battle of ideas will shape not only the political system of the Gulf, but also the way in which its energy resources are managed in the decades to come.
The first part of this project will describe the roots of the federal idea in the Muslim world. It is important to take seriously these early beginnings of federalist thought, because they transpired in a context of Islamic reform, as seen in the decentralisation movements of the late Ottoman Empire and during the debate on the Persian constitution in the first decade of the twentieth century. Many concepts that remain influential in today’s debate on federalism in the Islamic world have their intellectual roots in this era.
The project will then move on to analyse how twentieth-century imperialism created federal systems of government in a number of Arab and Islamic countries. Examples include mandate-era Syria, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Federation of South Arabia and the UAE. Within this string of specimens, the locus of attention will be on the Gulf case: the UAE. The UAE had an uneasy launch, but has since developed into an economically successful showpiece of federalism in the Islamic world. The study will also briefly review another category of federalism that emerged in the Muslim world in the twentieth century: the federalism of the pan-Arab unification schemes, in which federalism was more of a tool towards greater integration than a device to check the powers of the central government – so far the only variant of federalism in the Islamic world that has been subjected to a degree of systematic and comparative investigation.
Finally, the more recent trajectories of federalism in Arab and Islamic countries with a unitary past will be traced. Since the 1970s, federalism has been proposed as a solution for internal conflicts in a series of countries with large Muslim populations, including Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq and Somalia. The new characteristic of this third wave of Muslim federalism is the leading role of Islamist parties in shaping the debate. In some countries, Islamic parties have rejected federalism, whereas elsewhere, especially in Iraq, some Islamist parties have begun seeing it as a possible vehicle for the realisation of their political aims. Again, Iraq will be centre stage. In Iraq, the debate over the definition of federal entities among the Shiites – especially whether Basra should become a federal entity of its own, or form part of an all-Shiite super-state extending from the Gulf to Baghdad – will have ramifications for the politics of some of the world’s greatest oil reserves.
On this basis, an assessment will be made for the prospects of the spread of “Islam-style” federations in the Gulf region in the decades to come. What roles can the pioneering but still highly rudimentary ideas about Islamic federalism be expected to play in Gulf states that share the political complexity of a country like Iraq? “Candidate countries” for federalism include Saudi Arabia, Iran and Yemen – all of which have seen increasing interest in the concept of federalism among at least certain segments of the opposition. Particular attention will be paid to the cases that directly relate to the management of oil and gas resources: the UAE, the fate of Basra in the Iraqi federation, the role of Arabistan (Khuzestan) in the debate about decentralisation in Iran, and the place of the Hasa region in the Saudi Arabian reform project.
The project will have a historical approach with a strong emphasis on the comparative dimension. For twentieth-century developments, the principal archives and libraries of the British Empire will provide a solid empirical fundament, to be supplemented with materials from collections of Turkish, Arabic and Persian newspapers and journals, and French diplomatic sources where relevant. For recent history and the contemporary situation, the documentary collections of the universities of Exeter, Durham, SOAS and LSE can add to materials that are available online via the internet.
The Research Council of Norway